Holly Cave explores the revolutionary region, pivotal in the birth of industrialisation and once home to some of the greatest writers of our time.
The North West of England certainly knows how to have a good time. From the bright lights of Blackpool to the vibrant shops and nightlife of Manchester, it’s easy to have fun here. But it’s not all high-octane partying. The region is home to some of the country’s most beautiful natural scenery, with visitors flocking to see the mesmerising Lake District.
THE LAKE DISTRICT
England’s largest National Park doesn’t need sunshine to look good. This inspiring landscape of lakes, mountains and forests is home to England’s tallest peak, Scafell Pike, and the country’s longest and deepest lakes, Windermere and Wastwater.
Lake Windermere always draws in visitors, as it’s one of the top spots in which to take a cruise on the waters. Hire your own boat between April and October, or opt for a ferry trip. With a ‘Freedom of the Lake’ ticket, you’ll have unlimited journey’s on the day of purchase, allowing you to stop off at a number of the towns and attractions lining the lake.
Make a beeline for the Lake District Visitor Centre at Brockhole, which has its own ferry jetty. This free, family orientated attraction houses a gorgeous garden, a lovely café and offers a variety of activities, including water sports, walking trails and free exhibitions.
Wray Castle is another attraction perched over Windermere. Accessible by minibus or ferry, the property is an unusual concoction of Gothic architecture surrounded by wooded gardens, with amazing views of the lake. One of the many grand houses built by wealthy industrialists of the 1800s, its rooms are now empty, which only adds to its mysterious and haunting appeal. It’s not dissimilar to Bamburgh Castle in the North East. The latter is still inhabited, with the modern version built by industrialist Lord Armstrong in the late Victorian era.
Hop off at Bowness to look around the town, check out the Information Centre, and nip into The World of Beatrix Potter. Alternatively, call in at Lakeside to see the award-winning Lakes Aquarium, which is home to the UK’s largest collection of freshwater fish. Groups visiting could receive discounted rates and a guided tour, which is free of charge.
At the head of Windermere, the Victorian village of Ambleside makes for a pleasant visit. A designated heritage trail takes you to the best historical sights, with a short stroll from the centre leading visitors to Stock Ghyll Force – a spectacular waterfall that once powered an assortment of watermills. Windermere Lake Cruises offer special group rates on a variety of trips, with 20% off prices for pre-booked groups before 1030hrs and after 1600hrs. There’s coach parking at Bowness and Lakeside, with pick up/drop off points at Ambleside.
The dramatic landscapes of Cumbria inspire an appeal of its own. This is the land where the great poet William Wordsworth lived, where Beatrix Potter created her well-dressed countryside creatures, and where Arthur Ransome’s famous children’s story, Swallows and Amazons, is set. It was within the grounds of Dove Cottage that Wordsworth penned much of his poetry.
It’s a beautiful spot in which he raised his family, and visitors can touch ground to find that little has changed since the 1800s. Guided tours take groups around the cottage, its gardens and the Wordsworth Museum situated adjacent. Large groups will need to book in advance by contacting the Wordsworth Trust directly. Parking is available for coaches.
The National Trust managed property of Wordsworth House is where he spent his childhood, and this glorious house and gardens in the town of Cockermouth is worth visiting even if you’re not a huge fan. A tour of the home boasts a glimpse back into the 1770s, with some of the rooms offering ‘hands on’ experiences, such as helping to bake traditional recipes in the kitchen.
It’s also worth spending some time looking around the lovely town itself. The venue caters incredibly well for groups who book in advance. You’ll enjoy a free introductory talk, before choosing from a range of other experiences such as garden tours, harpsichord recitals and talks from costumed ‘servants.’ There’s free admission for the group leader and blue badge guides, plus coach drivers receive a complimentary hot drink and cake from the café. For many of us, it’s Beatrix Potter’s stories of Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck that epitomise the Lake District. Pay a visit to the pretty farmhouse, Hill Top, where she once lived, and you may even start to see small, friendly animals peeking out from the crevices.
This is a small venue and while groups are welcome, they must be pre-booked. The World of Beatrix Potter, located in the lakeside town of Bowness, is another great place for fans to find out more about the writer and her stories. A dedicated Groups Manager will help you with your booking and visit. Don’t leave town without picking up some famous local produce, such as Grasmere Gingerbread, Kendal Mint Cake and Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding.
CUMBRIA BEYOND THE LAKES
This county isn’t solely about the Lake District. Cumbria also includes the North Pennines, The Furness Peninsula and snippets of the Yorkshire Dales. The Eden Valley is less visited than Lakeland, and is an incredibly beautiful space located between the lakes and the Pennines.
The River Eden bursts with trout and salmon, with peaceful country walks and attractions, such as Lacy’s Caves, where chambers are carved from the riverside red sandstone cliffs that surround its banks. Little Salkeld Watermill lies to the west of the river, offering a fantastic base for a day out. The mill was restored in the 1970s and is now Cumbria’s only watermill in operation, actively churning out organic and biodynamic flour.
Open daily with the exception of early January, Little Salkeld, its tearooms and shop offer an amazing insight into how these mills work. Groups can book in for bread making sessions, guided tours and evening suppers. From this site, it’s a short walk to the Long Meg and Her Daughters Stone Circle – a Neolithic arrangement of stones that is ranked among the largest in Britain.
For a quick view of this area, catch the train along the scenic Settle to Carlisle railway line, passing through the Eden Valley at Appleby and Kirby Stephen. In fact, travelling by train can be a great way to see the North West landscape, and there are a few stretches worth seeing in particular.
The steep Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, back in the Lake District, is a must for steam train enthusiasts. Carlisle is the county town of Cumbria, and is well worth a visit. It has an elegant cathedral and imposing castle. This ancient township is full of heritage, with the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail ploughing right through the city. Carlisle Cathedral has stood since 1122, but much of the building has been rebuilt over the centuries. Its crypt is full of treasures, and much of its stained glass and medieval painted panels remain. Visits are free, but groups are asked to pre-book.
LANCASHIRE’S SEASIDE RETREATS
Aside from the Forest of Bowland – a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – it’s the striking coastline of Lancashire that is most worth visiting. Reaching into Cumbria, the 310 kilometres of Morecambe Bay is perhaps the most handsome stretch, with its wide, flat sands reaching far out to sea at low tide. While many visitors sign up for sailing, horse riding, kitesurfing and a variety of other outdoor pursuits, a simple walk offers amazing views of the sea, the distant Bowland Fells and mountains of the Lake District. The best views are accessed from Arnside Knott, Hampsfell Hospice, Hoad Hill and Humphrey Head.
On the edge of the bay, the seaside village of Heysham is sprinkled with 17th century cottages and pretty gardens – once painted by JMW Turner. The Bay’s salt marshes, waters and coastline are a precious habitat for a variety of wildlife. To view Morecambe from another perspective, head to Walney Island in Cumbria, which curls in to look back at the Bay from the sea. South Walney Nature Reserve is a top spot for keen bird watchers.
For somewhere a little livelier, head to Preston. The renewed docks and marina are a pleasure to wander around, and the town offers lots of independent shops, markets, and two major shopping centres for plenty of retail therapy. more going on, it has to be Blackpool.
Rising to prominence as a resort in the Industrial Revolution, where trains were built out of its coasts, Blackpool has become a riot of sounds and neon lights, rich with the mingling aromas of doughnuts, candy floss and fish and chips. At this traditional seaside town, it’s hard for anyone to resist the fun of the fair. You can’t visit without looking around Pleasure Beach, packed with rollercoasters and thrill rides. Though, there’s a small entrance fee and tickets are charged separately. Zip up the Blackpool Tower and if you’re feeling brave, walk over the plexiglass ‘skywalk’. Discounted group tickets can be bought in conjunction with other attractions such as Madame Tussauds, the Blackpool Tower Eye and the Blackpool Tower Dungeon. At night, from August until November, the famous illuminations will light up a six-mile stretch of coastline. Take a tour by road or tram to see their full extent.
There’s no doubt that Liverpool and Manchester are the party capitals of the North. The nightlife in both these cities is fantastic, with high-end restaurants, brilliant theatres and cinemas to glamorous bars and clubs open until late. During the day, you can shop until you drop and take in the historic and cultural sights. Liverpudlians are keen trendsetters, and visitors find that reflected in the stylish surroundings of the many designer boutique hotels and guesthouses. Ranked by Rough Guides in 2014 as the third best city to see in the world, Liverpool is home to a staggering number of museums and galleries.
There’s an incredible amount to see and do in this Merseyside city beyond the realm of football and pop music. Tate Liverpool in the Albert Dock has the largest collection of modern and contemporary art outside London. Other must see museums include the Museum of Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the International Slavery Museum and the World Museum.
Of course, a significant number of tourists travel here purely for The Beatles Experience. It was here, in the murky Cavern Club, that the group played hundreds of times in their early years. The Beatles Story, located in the Albert Dock, pulls all the strands of the bands history together in one place – it’s a must for fans. The Magical Mystery Tour also starts here, with a two-hour bus trip around landmarks such as Penny Lane and Strawberry Field. Exclusive, private tours are available for groups, either on one of the company’s vehicles or from the comfort of your own coach. The National Trust also runs joint tours of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s childhood homes.
Less than an hour’s drive away is another major football city. Like Liverpool, Manchester is also steeped in history and is rich with modern culture. Springing up alongside what was once the longest river navigation canal in the world, this city is now well known for its contributions to science, music, politics and architecture.
After London and Edinburgh, it’s the third most visited city in the UK – and with good reason. Whilst not without its own skyscrapers, converted red brick warehouses frame Manchester’s central streets and other buildings, such as the Town Hall, which adds to the historic feel. Don’t leave without wandering around the expansive Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) or admiring the world-famous Lowry and Manchester Art Gallery.